Living the Dream
The NFL’s Devon Still had it all – until he almost lost what mattered most
By Kate Morgan

Devon Still worked hard to get where he is. The Camden native was a high school football star who went on to be a first-team All American at Penn State. In 2012, the Cincinnati Bengals selected the defensive lineman in the second round to begin his professional football career. But only two years later, Still had to push football aside.

Leah Still

Leah Still

In June 2014, Still’s daughter Leah, then only 4, was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer. After two successful seasons with the Bengals, the team agreed to sign him to their practice squad only. It was a big step back professionally, but the move gave him health insurance to cover Leah’s treatments and time to be by her side.

“When I had to make the decision between football and helping my daughter, I always told myself if I sacrificed football I could get that back, but there was no getting my daughter back.”

Leah underwent surgery and treatment at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. When she lost her hair, Still shaved his head in solidarity. The devoted father flew back and forth between Cincinnati and Philadelphia every week, something he says made the ordeal even more difficult.

“Traveling back to Philly every week really started to take a toll on my body,” he says. “I’d had back surgery that off-season, and I was sleeping on a cot in Leah’s hospital room. It was tearing me down – my body started breaking down and it was hard to keep moving forward. There were a lot of times when I thought I was hitting rock bottom. Any parent who has a kid battling cancer knows you never want to leave their side. You can’t heal them; the only thing you can do is comfort them and just be there. I struggled with that a lot, because I had to leave. I had to go back to Cincinnati and do my job so I’d have the insurance to pay for her treatment.”

Still says he was amazed by the Bengals’ willingness to keep him onboard at a time when he was admittedly unable to give the team 100 percent of his efforts and energy. And then the organization did one better; it produced Still’s No. 75 jersey, devoting all of the proceeds entirely to pediatric cancer research and treatment organizations. Last year, they cut a check for $1.3 million to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

“The biggest thing for me was that this team understood exactly what my family was going through,” Still says. “They pay us a lot of money to put football first, so to be a part of an organization that let me put my daughter first meant everything to me.”

Still was focused on fatherhood, a value instilled in him by his own family. Raised in Camden, he says he was given a shining example of parenthood.

Asha-&-Devin;-Credit-Joseph-Lin-Photography-(1)“My whole family is from Camden,” he says. “My dad grew up without a father, my mom grew up without a father. They took that and turned it around and showed me how to be a parent. People tell me I’m a good example of what it means to be a dad. I think in that aspect I’m showing the younger generation how to be a father.”

During Leah’s fight against cancer, she and her dad became outspoken advocates for childhood cancer awareness and education, creating the hashtag #LeahStrong. Leah was featured in the music video for Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper’s “Truly Brave,” which raised more than $500,000 for the American Cancer Society. She appeared on the Today show and walked the runway at the Nike/Levi’s Kids Rock Fashion Show in New York City, and she and her father collaborated on a children’s book, “I Am Leah Strong,” aimed at kids facing similar diagnoses.

Still began using his position to spread information about the lack of funding for pediatric cancer treatments. He used social media to educate the public about what families dealing with pediatric cancer go through – especially when they don’t have an NFL player’s salary.

“To be honest, before my daughter was diagnosed I didn’t know much about pediatric cancer,” Still says. “I didn’t know what it was like for a family to have to go through it. People aren’t being educated on things like this. So I figured since I did have the platform of being an NFL player, and I saw the devastation of these families, I could give people an inside look, and maybe more people would step up and help.”

In late spring of 2015, it was announced that Leah, once given a 50/50 chance at survival, had entered remission. She received her last cancer treatment on Jan. 8, 2016.

For Leah’s courage in her battle with cancer, and Still’s commitment to both his daughter and the #LeahStrong campaign, the pair were awarded the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the 2015 ESPYs. Leah, confined to a hospital bed, was unable to attend, but in a moving acceptance speech Still thanked his team, his parents, his daughter and his fiancé, Asha Joyce.

“You’re the only person that knows what I went through,” Still told the ESPYs crowd. “You stood by my side. You let me know you wasn’t going nowhere – you were going to be there for me.”

Joyce and Still got engaged in 2014 but at the time of the awards show, they hadn’t made any wedding plans.

“I didn’t want to do anything until I knew my daughter was going to be able to walk down that aisle as a flower girl,” Still continued. “I thank you for being so unselfish, and I promise you I’m going to try to give you the wedding of your dreams.”

After the speech, which became a viral sensation online, Still and Joyce were contacted by “The Knot,” a media company that publishes content for couples planning weddings. The Knot selected Still and Joyce as their 2016 “Dream Wedding” couple. The Knot readers will vote on the details of the wedding, set for this spring.

The couple put a unique touch on their wedding plans. Rather than register for gifts, they created a charity registry. Guests can choose to donate to four pediatric cancer charities in lieu of a gift.

Leah is excited to walk down the aisle as the flower girl. She also can’t wait, she says, to get back to doing the “normal kid stuff” that cancer took from her.

“I’m excited to make new friends,” she says. “I want to go back to doing everything I used to do before cancer.”

Now 5, Leah says her battle against cancer has given her a new purpose. When she grows up, she says, she wants to help other kids like her.

“I want to be a nurse and work with kids who have cancer,” she says. “I want to have my own hospital, where we fix kids and tell them they can be brave. I’ll call it Leah Strong Hospital.”

With his daughter in remission and his wedding plans on track, Still says it’s time to get back to work. He was released by the Bengals in late 2015 and signed with the Houston Texans last month. While he’s eager to be back on the field, he says he’ll continue to act as an advocate for families dealing with cancer diagnoses, keeping up the work he and Leah began, with the Texans’ full support.

“From the beginning, they showed me they’re going to give me that love and support,” Still says. “And I think Leah’s excited for me to get back to football. She’s missed watching me play.”

February 2016
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